Chain and Corporate “Family Dining” restaurants.


What about working in chains and family dining corporations?

I have been taken aback recently by the number of resumes from one respected East Coast culinary school showing nothing but chain and family dining.  This is a new trend, highly unusual and a little hard to figure out. Not so long ago culinary grads would have preferred to be shot rather than “selling out” (which working for a corporate restaurant group definitely is not).

Seeking explanations I come up with a few possibilities:

1)      The recession has put people in a position of having to take any job they can get.

2)      The school is somehow responsible for these choices, having determined to take some funding or sponsorship from these groups.

3)      Large corporations promote people sooner, relying on inside training rather than experience to provide the necessary skill sets to run a unit, so recent graduates, whose ambition outstrips their wisdom choose the title over the future.

4)      The initial pay with these companies is greater than that of a cooks job with far greater future options.

5)      Schools are recruiting a different kind of student – not just the wide eyed Food TV enthusiast but the returning vet seeking a secure job with ordered systems and working conditions good for families.

6)     Family dining chains are offering a great deal more to new hires than I knew.

By “Family Dining” here I mean groups with national or international coverage and more than a few outlets, generally located in malls and suburban or not food destination areas.  These groups have highly structured management procedures and fixed menus (“poured in plastic”) which generally allow no more than a special or two a week at the most if at all, those often produced by a corporate chef. This leaves the chef with little autonomy and makes higher level management jobs more accessible to applicants with less previous experience, as the companies’ training procedures can bring them up to speed in short order.

These are fair jobs, and if the sameness isn’t too  frustrating, they provide fair lifelong employment. They are in some ways, however, limiting.

First of all, the corporate control prevents the employees from exercising, being trained in and learning the kind of decision making necessary for the top positions of entrepreneurial ventures.

Second, the chefs of these operations are more foremen or kitchen managers than chefs. They make food but they don’t create. They oversee the process and apply quality controls, but few, for instance,  have the freedom to choose vendors or tweak a sauce.

Third, the speed with which the title of “chef” or “kitchen manager” is achieved bypasses the extended learning period necessary to provide the entire palate of knowledge and skills required of a great culinary professional or FoH professional with the vast palate of industry awareness needed in a free standing or semi independent restaurant or club (as, for instance, a hotel unit).

It is possible that recruiters for these positions present them as great entry points into the industry, and, I believe, they do so honestly. The problem is that they, too, have limited understanding of the range of F&B industry demands and responsibilities. What this means, then, is that someone who has earned all of the badges at a solid corporate entity will probably not be considered for a position in a non chain environment, as they will lack the required skill set and rigor.

Growth within the company is naturally an incentive, but my experience shows that this works fairly well in the Front of the House jobs, from which managers actually do rise to multi unit and corporate director positions, but less so in the kitchen. I’d go as far to say that your chances of reacing CEO, Director of Operations or VP level are greater coming from corporate groups than they would be from more prestigious independent restaurant jobs, especially if you have a degree in restaurant or business management.

The same does not hold true for kitchen based jobs. The  family dining groups I have worked with seem to prefer to recruit corporate level culinary talent that has been schooled elsewhere in a wider variety of foods and techniques than those used within the group itself. This makes sense, as corporate chefs are expected to develop new items and explore new culinary directions for the group rather than continue to provide the standards they have learned on the inside.

Make no mistake. Corporate restaurants can be  wonderful employers. They are stable and professional. They lack the arbitrary nature of privately owned restaurants and the politics of  hotels. The people who work in them tend to be pleasant and happy. They pay reasonably for management and offer good insurance  and often provide retirement programs. Most have one or two flagship operations which offer well schooled and experienced culinary management highly attractive opportunities, and their multi-unit or corporate level positions are challenging and rewarding.

I do not believe, though, that these organizations are good places to start at the bottom and work up, if you have spent a large amount of money on a culinary education.  Highly controlled environments with a wide demographic as target rarely are.  A Japanese proverb states that “The strongest steel comes from the hottest fire.” That fire is not part of the corporate dining progress, but strong steel is what independent restaurants seek in their staff.  In other words, if you begin in family dining, you will probably spend your entire career in that industry sector. There is nothing wrong with that, if that is what you want.

For those without the benefit of culinary education, they often seem to offer accessible entry points into the restaurant industry.  The structure and highly professional nature of (inter)national corporate restaurant groups, however, make them a good place to cash in on what you learn and practice outside of them.  I do not see them as ideal first jobs, but perhaps I am missing something.